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Front Page » Top Stories » Gables Chamber President Taking A Breather After Iraq Mission

Gables Chamber President Taking A Breather After Iraq Mission

Written by on December 16, 2004

By Sherri C. Ranta
For most of the past year, Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce President Lettie Bien strapped on body armor and weapons and headed to her temporary post as senior adviser at the Iraqi Ministry of Minerals and Industry.

Instead of assisting local businesses at home, Army Reserve Col. Bien found herself with authority over the ministry and leading the transition of Iraq’s state-owned industries to private entities.

Rising crime and violence by insurgents, she said this week, prevent leaders from getting serious about privatizing the country’s industries. The industries are not profitable, she said, at least in terms understood by the West.

"Saddam (Hussein) in essence confiscated all large privately owned companies. My real job was getting these factories back up and operating, getting people into the factories to work and developing markets for their products," she said.

"These state-owned enterprises – cement and construction materials, plastics, petrochemicals and fertilizer facilities – are jobs programs. There is easily 50% worker redundancy in every factory. In an unstable environment, 250,000 to 300,000 layoffs won’t help your security situation."

The Iraqi government pays workers whether their factory is working or not. The biggest problem for many facilities, she said, in addition to age and negligence, is a shortage of electricity.

After the Iraqi interim government took control of the country June 28, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi appointed Ms. Bien to the National Privatization Commission, where she retained an advisory role. She was the only woman to serve on the board.

"I went to 15 meetings with other private-sector specialists and deputy ministers, watching them try to develop what would be presented to the leadership for privatizing state-owned industries," she said.

Iraq, Ms. Bien said, is a country drained of its initiative and energy by Saddam. He told the 65% of them born during his 30-year reign that capitalism – anything Western – is bad.

"That is huge. The psyche there is truly contrary to a free-market economy," Ms. Bien said.

Older, educated Iraqis received degrees from universities in the West but were stifled in their work under Saddam. No one wanted to make things better for fear they or their families would be killed, she said.

Ms. Bien returned Nov. 21 to Coral Gables and is preparing to return to the chamber early next month. While she’s decompressing, she’s helping to plan a holiday party at their home, she said.

She said her husband of 13 years, David Schmitt , a medical doctor, wrote her a letter every day she was gone.

"David wrote me every day. It was amazing," she said. "He tells everyone he is an Army wife."

Ms. Bien said she is reflecting on her experiences – some she says she never would have imagined.

A typical workday started at 6 a.m. and ended late at night, she said, especially when she worked a second assignment for two months as military assistant to Ambassador Richard Jones, who was second in command to Coalition Provisional Authority head J. Paul Bremer. For the most part, she worked seven days a week.

"Every morning I would sit in intelligence briefings in Bremer’s office," she said. "It was another one of those times when you look around and think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible.’"

People ask her if she, a woman, was treated well in Iraq.

"I got treated exceptionally well," she said. "A part of me thinks that Iraqi men look at American women as a third species."

Security remains a problem in Iraq. The general crime rate – not just the insurgency – is rising. People are afraid to leave their homes at night.

Her translator was shot and refused to come to the ministry because he thought someone there tried to kill him.

While Ms. Bien was escorted by armed American soldiers and private contractors each time she went to the ministry building, she did take several trips to factories in such cities as Fallujah, Basra and Nasariah, all known for their insurgencies.

"Before Saddam," she said, "this was an incredible country, rich in natural resources, the jewel of the Middle East." Women also fared well, having advanced degrees in medicine and engineering.

Ms. Bien joined the Army in 1976 and the Reserves after leaving active duty in 1981. She served again under active-duty status from 1995 to 1997 and 2003-04. She’s attached to the 350th Civil Affairs Command, based in Pensacola.

After 28 years of service – beginning as a paratrooper – Ms. Bien said, next year she will submit her retirement papers. Regulations bar soldiers returning from deployment from submitting papers for personnel actions for 90 days.